Why We Should Talk About Hell

A while back I read Rob Bell’s book ‘Love Wins’ and it caused me to re-think a lot about how I view hell, even causing me to have some concerns about what I had been taught all my life. That fallback position to go back to ‘what I’ve always been taught’ isn’t the best standard to judge the legitimacy of an idea, though, like comfort food, can be a good starting point. I will admit that I even had some doubt about what I believe. What is hell? What is its purpose? Is it a place? Is it forever? Should we fear it? Does it cause people to turn away from God? Does it make it hard if not impossible for us to share the love of Christ with someone else? Is it a problem for Christianity?

I think that the whole idea of hell is one of Christianity’s most offensive doctrines. Peter Kreeft writes: “Of all the doctrines in Christianity, Hell is probably the most difficult to defend, the most burdensome to believe and the first to be abandoned.”

 Many are repulsed, sickened and appalled by the idea of an eternal place of punishment, especially if someone suggests that includes themselves, friends & family. “Hitler maybe, but not my grandmother.”

Because of these angsts, many Christians will avoid the topic of Hell altogether. We don’t hear it talked about from the pulpit in may churches anymore and it isn’t usually a part of the conversation around a shared meal. We don’t want to rock the boat maybe or we think that Hell isn’t a required subject when sharing the gospel.

I propose however, that we need to talk about Hell more than we do. I believe that it is integral to the Gospel message and is doing the church a disservice when we hide it away as though it is the crazy uncle we’re embarrassed to talk about.

So, I did what I always do when faced with a spiritual and / or theological question. No, I didn’t ask Siri or head to the theological depths of Wikipedia, I went to God’s word… and even more specifically the Word made flesh. If we want to answer the question of hell, then we need to look at Jesus and what he had to say on the subject.

He’s a great place to start for a few reasons. The first is that people in the West think Jesus is a pretty good guy so if you want to help others understand a particular subject it helps if you can ‘name drop’ someone they like. Oprah likes him, at least the non-confrontational Jesus, and Deepak Chopra has even written books about Jesus as a great mystic and guru of Eastern religion.

In our culture we find that Jesus isn’t painted with the same brush as that angry, vengeful, cranky God of the Old Testament who hadn’t matured out of his confusing puberty years yet. But when God finally grew up and entered his college years in the New Testament, he reemerged as the party guy named Jesus. Good times! Parties in Cana, lots of talk about love and compassion and grace, and of course helpful spiritual sound bites. Selfies all round!

The problem with this view though is that it’s not true, which is another reason why I find it helpful to go to Jesus. We get most of our understanding of hell, not from the Old Testament, but from Jesus own words. When you start reading the Gospels, you find that Jesus speaks about hell more than anyone else. About 13% of his teachings and half of his parables are about hell, judgment, punishment, and the wrath of God.

Jesus talked about hell and it follows that we should too. First though, how do we reconcile a Jesus of grace & mercy & love with a Jesus’ of wrath, punishment & hell?

I think that number one, we need to see that interwoven with the love of God is his mercy that requires justice. If a judge pardons an unrepentant child abuser without any good reason, we wouldn’t applaud his mercy and see it as an act of love, particularly when we consider the rights of the victim (and the safety of potential future victims). Mercy without justice is reckless and dangerous. True justice requires adequate payment for the crime or crimes committed.

“When a person goes through rape or child abuse, she needs to know that there is a God of such holiness and beauty that his reign can tolerate no evil.” – Tim Keller

Even if someone got off because of a loophole in the justice system, we’d call it “Injustice!” Why? Because we have something within us that tells us that injustice is wrong. It’s a universal belief that we know it has to be paid for.

If God is truly just, then there is punishment for offenses committed.

Yet, many people will demand God show them mercy while still refusing to love that very same God. “I will not follow you and obey your commands –  but don’t send me to hell.” However, the facts are that God’s mercy & love are inseparable.

The other concern I needed to address after reading Rob Bell’s book was the idea that hell was symbolic as opposed to a real cavernous abode of fire and brimstone… so I went back to the Word of God to see what is revealed there.

Some people get confused and will deduce that hell can’t be a physical place because of how it is described. For example, when scripture describes hell, it speaks about “eternal fire” “unquenchable fire”. But it also says that hell is a place of utter darkness.

So, what is it?

It’s all the above. It is fire, darkness and a real place hung in real time. Yet, because of our culture, we often imagine the fire and darkness as literal flames and literal inky blackness. Instead we need to understand the language was used to help us understand the magnitude of the place.

For example, when the bible speaks about a God of unquenchable fire, we don’t imagine him being a big ball of literal fire. Rather we understand that it’s giving us a picture of his holiness.

Likewise, when we read that God has blinded the eyes of the unbeliever in John 12:10, we don’t expect to see a bunch of unsaved people on the roads driving around with dark glasses on because they’re literally blind all of a sudden. We know that it’s speaking of their spiritual condition.

At the same time, in Luke 16, Jesus speaks about heaven and hell as being real places with hell as a place of separation from the presence of God. Yet it wasn’t utter darkness in a physical sense since the Rich man could see Lazarus (albeit through sweaty eyes). However, think about the following; Since God is the source of all spiritual light, and all joy and all wisdom and all love or good thing of any sort, and since we were originally created for God’s immediate presence, it is then only before him will we thrive, flourish, and achieve our highest potential.

So, if we were to lose his presence totally, that’d be the deepest darkness of the soul. Without his light, we can only expect the loss of our capability for giving or receiving love or joy and finding any kind of satisfaction.

Add to that the picture of fire which speaks to its nature as a degenerater, something that deteriorates to ash everything it touches. Even in this life we can see the kind of soul deterioration that self-centeredness creates.

We know how selfishness and self-absorption leads to piercing bitterness, nauseating envy, paralyzing anxiety, paranoid thoughts, and the mental denials and distortions that accompany them.

We see this process in a small way in addictions such as drugs, alcohol, gambling, and pornography. First there is the degeneration, because as time goes on you need more and more of the addictive substance to get an equal kick, which leads to less and less satisfaction.

And then add the bitter darkness that isolation brings we had talked about in the Rich man’s situation, as increasingly you blame others and the surrounding environment or circumstances in order to justify your behaviour.

With that in mind ask the question:

“What if when we die we don’t end, but spiritually our life extends into eternity?”

With that picture in your mind’s eye you can see that Hell is the fire or the deterioration of a soul by living a self-absorbed, self-centred, angst driven, anxiety filled, blame shifting life – going on & on forever.

“Yeah, but I’m not all that bad. I haven’t murdered somebody, I’m not a drug addict, I don’t look at porn – often. I only get mad at ‘stupid’ drivers, God will be fair and let me into heaven.”

Jesus didn’t say the greatest commandment is to not murder, or to not commit adultery, though he did say that if you had anger in your heart you’ve committed murder, or if you’ve ever lusted after someone other than your spouse you’ve committed adultery.

But what Jesus did say was that the greatest commandment was, “to love God with all your heart soul and mind.” There is no greater evidence of the inability of man to obey God’s law than this one commandment. No human being with a fallen nature can possibly love God with all his heart, soul, and strength 24 hours a day. It’s humanly impossible.

Even without considering the sins we commit daily, we are all condemned by our inability to fulfill this one commandment. Further to that, the Bible declares that everyone sins, and that all sin is ultimately against God.

“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” – Romans 3:23

“Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.” – Psalm 51:4

Those verses are sobering enough, but then also understand that those who go to Hell aren’t going to be suddenly sinless and perfect. Those who go into eternity without Christ will be confirmed in their decision to not follow him while on earth.

Jesus said that there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” in Hell. The gnashing of teeth isn’t a picture of someone who is in sorrow and repentance but rather a picture of a continued defiance toward God.

In Hell there will be no repentance.

So, unless you surrender your life to God in this lifetime, you will not only be living in disobedience to God for 70, 80, 90, or 100 years, you will be in disobedience before him for eternity – which requires an eternal penalty.

Why did Jesus speak about hell more than anyone else in the Bible? Because he wanted us to see what he was going to endure on the cross on our behalf so that we might choose heaven – so that we might choose God.

On the cross, Jesus’s sacrifice was scarcely describable: this bloodied, disfigured remnant of a man was given a cross that was perhaps recycled, likely covered in the blood, feces, and urine of other men who had used it previously. Hanging there in immense pain, he slowly suffocated to death. All the while knowing he could end the suffering, but choosing not to for our benefit.

But that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was the separation from the Father that Jesus felt, a separation that was like hell itself. “My God, my God,” he cried out, “Why have you forsaken me?” – Matthew 27:46

An eternity without God is hell.

Without the cleansing of sin that he provides, and the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit who lives in the hearts of the redeemed, loving God to any degree is impossible.

But, when we receive the free gift of salvation offered by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, we are cleansed from sin and receive the Spirit of holiness to do the impossible. That being, a transformation of our hearts and minds to love God as we have been commanded to do, and as a result heaven becomes our home. This is great news!

That is why we talk about hell, because it allows us to talk about Jesus and his sacrifice… it allows us to make Jesus known, it brings clarity to the Gospel message about why Jesus died, and it lets us brag up our Saviour in order to bring him all the glory he deserves.

How Might We Influence Current Culture?

If you visit the front page of the Westboro Baptist Church’s website, you will be bombarded with all kinds of hateful messages. ‘God hates fags’ to ‘Thank God for 2 more dead soldiers’. I don’t know about you but it makes me sick looking at the hate being displayed towards those they should be loving. Most of us are well aware of their protests and many have seen the photos of them holding up signs proclaiming disgust for the sinner along with a glee of their impending doom. They come across as hateful, self-righteous and hypocritical to a watching world. Most of us would agree that their methods are way off target, and in fact are making enemies of those they claim to be reaching with Christ’s love instead of building relationships. I think it’s safe to say that they are doing more harm than good.

But I wonder about how the ‘rest’ of us come across to a hurting world? An issue comes up that gets our Christian community all worked up, and we go on the warpath, protesting on social media, demanding boycotts of this movie, that book, or some political figure. I have been guilty myself of ‘protesting’ on social media in the past and found myself acting like a jerk, building walls instead of bridges. Are we justified in our ‘methodology’ often acting like jerks while we decry ‘Westboro’s’ practices? Whatever our position is (on anything), if we can’t communicate it in love, we’re nothing more than a clanging cymbal and our message is worthless. (1 Corinthians 13).

I am not saying that we don’t warn other Christian brothers and sisters by shining the light of God’s word on the dangers in the culture, especially dangers that might hurt our children or the little ones (new believers) within our care. I am not even saying that we should never prayerfully ‘protest’ and or ‘boycott’ as we sense the Holy Spirit’s prodding, such as when the medical system is brutally murdering unborn children, when assisted suicide is becoming mainstream, when paedophilia is being championed as normal by some in the psychiatry world. The gospel tells us that God is concerned for the relief of poverty, hunger, and injustice. Obviously, there are times when we can’t remain silent and we have to step up and make some noise.

But here’s a news flash… our culture doesn’t care what we think about the evil creeping into our world. In fact, the culture is already evil, has been for a long time, ever since a couple named Adam & Eve. Honestly, what do we think the world thinks when we stamp our feet and tell them we’re upset with them for not acting like Christians? Think about that for a moment. Here’s the point – they aren’t Christians. That being the case, why do we expect them to act like Christ?

The thing is that we are called to be influencers in our culture. The question however is just how do we live and act to be those witnesses we have been called to be? If we truly believe that we must be influencers in our culture, as I do, allow me to share five ways that I believe will make a difference.

1) Intentionally become involved in the lives of those we live with

“The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” – John 1:14

Since Jesus stepped into our culture and journeyed beside us, working to renew us, I believe that it be-hooves all Disciples of Christ to commit to becoming a part of the lives of individuals who make up the culture around us to see them transformed to live for Jesus.

That means then that we must be a part of the shaping of, engaging in & participating with culture to see it renewed. We’re not called to be taken out of the world but to use the things God has given human culture in order to bring glory to him: things such as music, movies, artistic expression, technology, etc. It is our privilege to redeem it to his glory – personal and cultural renewal through the gospel of Jesus.

More specifically, I believe that the local church needs to be equipped to be an outpouring of our relationship with Christ in our communities by identifying the needs of the community and then using the gifts at our disposal to meet those needs. This can only truly be done as relationships are created with the surrounding community otherwise all we become is a program machine instead of a place where mission meets needs.

2) Sacrificially love the neighbour we come in contact with

In the book of Jeremiah, we read about how the Israelite nation had been destroyed by the Babylonian empire, and were now relocated to that great city of Babylon. How should they react to this strange new foreign world and culture? What was their attitude supposed to be now that they were living there as a part of it?

Possibly they could just keep to themselves, stick their heads in the sand and have nothing whatsoever to do with it. Maybe they could just make lots of noise to point out their case whenever something they didn’t agree with came into view. They could have, but God said something to them that spoke to a unique way.

“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” – Jeremiah 29:7

God was saying that they were to put their energies and their focus into making Babylon a great city (culture) to live in. We’re not talking about a prosperity gospel thing or a social gospel thing, rather we’re talking about a societal welfare through loving others thing. In other words, his approach for them is to serve their neighbours – even though their language is different and have different morals and they don’t believe what they believe.

God wants them to pray for the city and people, which really means to love them. Love them, pray for them, and look for ways to help them become a prosperous, peaceful city, to become the greatest place to live. God’s campaign platform was “Make Babylon Great Again!”. In other words, God was calling them to a totally different approach than what we might have expected.

3) Humbly serve the people in our sphere of influence

Jesus was the perfect model for gaining influence through humble service and unconditional love. How did he respond to his enemies? He didn’t call down legions of angels to fight them, instead he died for their sins, and even as he was dying what did he do? He prayed for them!

Jesus must be more than just a good example for us, he needs to be the ‘heart beat’ in how we actual live out our faith. In other words, if that is his fallback position, that needs to be our starting point too. “If at the very heart of your worldview is a man dying for his enemies, then the way you’re going to win influence in society is through service rather than power and control.”[i]

Jesus certainly got upset at the religious elite for hypocrisy and selfish nonjudgmental-ism, but we never see him getting ‘upset’ at sinners for acting like sinners. The religious leaders saw the average person (sinner) as losers. Jesus on the other hand viewed them as ‘lost’. He cared deeply about them with an unfathomable depth of compassion. “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” – Luke 19:10 When we view people as ‘losers’ there is always contempt, however when we see them as Jesus sees them, as ‘lost’, there is compassion.

The average person in first century Israel saw their religious leaders as unapproachable, judgemental and contemptuous. On the flip side, many of the same people saw Jesus as completely approachable, and as someone who genuinely cared about them.

What about us? We say everyone is welcome in our churches, but do we really believe that? If a transgender person walked into your church service this Sunday, would you genuinely reach out and show hospitality (maybe invite them for lunch) and display sincere love? Remember that a transgender man or woman is a real person trying to discover who they really are, and they, as we, can only find our identity in Christ. Do you have compassion like Jesus enough to commit to walk with them through that journey?

Here’s the thing, people will only trust us when they see that we’re not only out for ourselves, but out for them too with a sincerity in our compassion. It’s when they begin to recognise the attractiveness of our sacrificial love, that we’ll have real influence.

 4) Actively live out the gospel to reach the culture

I came across something I read in a book by Martyn Lloyd-Jones that speaks to the church being the church…

“I am certain that the world outside is not going to pay much attention to all the organized efforts of the Christian church. The one thing she will pay attention to is a body of people filled with the spirit of rejoicing… If you really do feel what you say about the daily evidence in the newspapers of the moral rot that is setting in in this country, if you feel that we are facing ruin economically and industrially, because people are worshippers and lovers of pleasures rather than lovers of god, if you really believe that and mean it and feel it, then it will be your duty to become a person such as is depicted here, because this is the only thing that is going to persuade men.  They say, ‘Oh we know your teaching and preaching, we have had it all before,’ but when they see it in operation they will listen because they are miserable and unhappy.  When they see this quality, they will begin to pay real attention.”[ii]

The truth is that outside of the Holy Spirit’s convicting work, the greatest and best invitation to the gospel is a community of disciples living out the active and breathing gospel to the world. Christians who live under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and in obedience to Christ, instead of making demands on a world who simply doesn’t understand or agree with those demands, will inevitably influence the world for good.

5) Shine brighter in contrast to the darkness of the age

Jesus said about us, “You are the light of the world” – Matthew 5:14. What does light do? Wherever there is even the least bit of light, darkness disappears. You can be in the darkest place imaginable and just a tiny light has the power to drive away all that black, oppressive darkness. That’s what we do. The presence of a Christian in the world is supposed to be like a light in the darkness, not only in the sense that the truth of God’s Word shining a light into the darkness of humanity’s heart, or as a beam of hope into a despairing soul, but also in the sense that our good deeds can’t help but be seen.

A flashlight can be like a glorious light in the darkness of a mining tunnel, but that same flashlight in the middle of the brightest day and it would be hardly visible. Here’s my question, where do lights shine the brightest? The answer of course is in the darkest of places. So, I wonder, for the witness of Christ to be truly effective, would it not then make sense that the world be dark?

“And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness.” – Acts 4:29

I find it interesting that the early church asked for boldness and not for the tribulations they were facing to be taken away. I wonder what would happen to our world if we prayed that we shine brighter rather than asking for the dark days to disappear? After all there is nothing like meeting a Christian who is reflecting the light of Jesus. That person is a thing of beauty in a dull world. That is how Jesus lived and this is what every one of us needs to aim to be like.

Finally…

“Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world.” – Philippians 2:14-15

Let’s strive to be just like stars that don’t draw attention to the individual pinpoint of light, but rather draw their ‘oohs’ & ‘ahhs’ because of the expansive majesty of the night sky. We aren’t to draw attention to ourselves but instead put all the focus onto the majesty of Jesus, while we influence our ‘Babylon’ by praying for it, serving with everything we’ve got and by being so sacrificially loving that the people around us, who don’t believe what we believe, may soon come to a place where they can’t imagine this world without us.

[i] Timothy Keller, King’s Cross, (Dutton Redeemer, New York, NY 2011) pg. 149

[ii] Lloyd-Jones, Joy Unspeakable (Harold Shaw Pub, Wheaton, IL, 1984) pgs. 102-103

When The Darkness Overwhelms

Guest post from Quina Aragon   originally posted NOVEMBER 8, 2017

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Disheartening conversations. Division within the body of Christ. Fear for my husband’s safety as he drives. Family members facing heart-wrenching trials. Friends suffering physically, emotionally, spiritually. Strained relationships. And those are just my more immediate concerns.

There’s the global persecution of Christians, terrorism, natural disasters, mass shootings, and more. Oh yeah, and my own struggles with idolatry, apathy, and distrust of God’s goodness.

Has anyone else felt like the darkness—both within and without—might just consume you lately?

TRUE LIGHT

Last year I studied the Gospel of John in my Bible Study Fellowship group. One of the themes is light versus darkness.

In John 1, Jesus is referred to as “the true light, which gives light to everyone” (John 1:9). He is “the light [that] shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). Yet when the true light came into the world, the world didn’t recognize him, nor his own people receive him.

Why did the majority of people reject Jesus? John tells us: “the light has come into the world, and the people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19).

People may have loved the darkness, but the darkness couldn’t overcome the light. Jesus didn’t come in vain. “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13). Surrounded by the darkness of this world, Jesus transformed children of darkness into children of light. He promised that “whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

DARK NIGHT, DARK DAY

Fast forward to the night before his death. After Jesus washes Judas’s feet and shares a meal with him, Judas leaves to betray Jesus for the price of a slave. “So, after receiving the morsel of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night” (John 13:30).

A dark night indeed.

On the same night Jesus is betrayed with a kiss, the rest of his friends abandon him (Matt. 26:56). Fully aware his friends were about to fail him, Jesus offers them words of comfort: “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Overcome the world? Really? The next day, Jesus was nailed to a cross, consumed by physical and spiritual darkness (Matt. 27:45-46).

But it is there—in midday darkness, suffering the greatest injustice of all time—that Jesus was actually defeating the darkness of this world (Mark 15:33-34Acts 2:36Is. 53:3-10). This is why he could call the cross—the very tool used to shame and punish criminals—his glory (John 13:31-32Heb. 12:2).

Jesus bore our darkness in his body and faced the wrath of God on our behalf (2 Cor. 5:21Romans 5:9Is. 53:10). On that third day he rose in victory over our sin, death, Satan—all the darkness (Col. 2:13-15). Jesus overcame the darkness.

IN THE LIGHT, WE OVERCOME

What does this mean for us here and now? In his epistle, the apostle John tells us: “Everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:4-5). This means that if you’re in Christ, you’re in the light—the very light who overcame all of the world’s darkness.

Because Jesus overcame all that darkness for us, we too will overcome the world and all its darkness. 

Right now we face trials of all kinds: tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, the sword (Rom. 8:35). “As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’” (Rom. 8:36) Yet because we are in the light himself, we know that “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37).

We pray now for deliverance, protection, healing, and all kinds of help. Amazingly, we often see God answer with a resounding, “Yes!” to our persistent prayers. But we don’t get to say what God knows is best for us here and now. Sometimes he says, “No,” and in his providence the cancer stays, the slander persists, the violence attacks.

We look to him, we cry out to him, and we trust in him—even as the darkness closes in. Whether on this side of eternity or the other, he will make right every wrong (Is 61:112 Cor. 4:17). No darkness can thwart the amazing plan of God to bring us safely into his kingdom, be it through many tribulations (2 Tim. 4:18Acts 14:22).

Because of Jesus, we can and will overcome the darkness, both within and without. In him, life will swallow up death (1 Cor. 15:51-57). In him, light will consume the darkness (Rev. 21:23-25). We may feel overwhelmed by the darkness, but it will never consume us.

The light is our hope, and he is risen. So we will rise.

And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there.” (Rev. 21:23-25)

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Quina Aragon is a wife, mother, and artist who enjoys copyediting, creating spoken-word videos, and writing for her personal blog and The Witness. She lives in Tampa, Florida, and is a member of Living Faith Bible Fellowship.

To Ink Or Not To Ink – What Does The Bible Say?

Tattoos are more popular than ever. Currently one in five Canadian adults has at least one tattoo. Entertainers, professional athletes, and even a 2009 version of Barbie, have multiple, and very visible, tattoos.

Traditionally, In the North American culture, tattoos were the domain of sailors, bikers, and entertainers. Today, many others sport tattoos… including professionals, business leaders and even many pastors. With such prevalence and interest, the question rightfully asked is, “What dos the Bible say about tattoos?”   

The short answer is… nothing. At least nothing conclusive. In fact, the New Testament is completely silent about whether or not a believer should get a tattoo (at least directly). The only verse that identifies ‘tattoos’ is found in the Old Testament law which commanded the Israelites, “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD” – Leviticus 19:28

Some immediately condemn all tattooing as immoral because of this passage in Leviticus, arguing that this issue is pretty straightforward based on the direct mention of ‘tattoo’. Others, however, say that this passage no longer applies to us because it’s Old Testament law.

So, how do we handle such a ‘current’ issue? Though believers today are not under the Old Testament law, the fact that there was a command in any form against tattoos at all should raise some questions at the very least.

At first glance the Levitical passage seems to indicate that tattoos are forbidden for Christians. But to comprehend Scripture correctly, we must always examine the whole of Scripture and look at the particular context of any given passage. In connection with the surrounding verses, and in context with the historical setting at the time of its writing, Leviticus 19:28 is part of a larger passage of scripture.

 You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your cattle breed with a different kind. You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor shall you wear a garment of cloth made of two kinds of material. You shall not eat any flesh with the blood in it. You shall not interpret omens or tell fortunes. You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard. You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord. Do not profane your daughter by making her a prostitute, lest the land fall into prostitution and the land become full of depravity. You shall keep my Sabbaths and reverence my sanctuary: I am the Lord. Do not turn to mediums or necromancers; do not seek them out, and so make yourselves unclean by them: I am the Lord your God.” – Leviticus 19:19, 26–31

In this passage God is speaking to his covenant people Israel. He is specifically telling them to stay away from the religious practices of the surrounding people groups. The prohibited religious practices in these verses include eating bloody meat, fortune telling, certain haircuts related to the priests of false cults, cutting or marking the body for dead relatives, cultic prostitution and consulting psychics. When read in context, we can see that this passage is not one of body décor but one of marking oneself in connection with cultic religious worship.

Still some may argue that tattoos are wrong because it modifies the body which somehow defiles God’s creation. However, if this was the case then we’d need to condemn ear piercing, cutting hair, hair colouring, clipping nails, getting a tan, weight loss, makeup, plastic surgery or possibly orthodontia among other things. Each of the previously mentioned practices modifies the way we were originally created, some permanently.

Having said that, in 1 Peter we do have this command. “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.” – 1 Peter 3:3-4

Granted, this passage is directed at women, but there is a principle here that may be apropos: namely, a person’s external appearance should not be the focus of our attention. Much effort goes into “elaborate hairstyles” and “fine clothes” and jewelry, but that’s not where a woman’s true beauty lies. In the same way, tattoos and body piercings are “outward adornment,” and we should be careful to give more effort to the development of the “inner self”.

Even still, the law is the law, isn’t it?

A lot of confusion comes from the misunderstanding between moral law and ceremonial law. The moral law encompasses regulations on justice, respect, and sexual conduct. Much of the moral law was carried forward and affirmed in the New Testament church. That is why we would still commit to things such as sexual purity or value life because we see them adhered to in the New Testament.

Ceremonial law on the other hand includes instructions on regaining right standing with God through sacrifices and other ceremonies regarding “uncleanness”, remembrances of God’s work in Israel such as feasts and festivals, specific regulations meant to distinguish Israelites from their pagan neighbours such as dietary, adornment (tattoos and ear piercings) and clothing restrictions, and certain signs that point to the coming Messiah like the Sabbath, circumcision, Passover, and the redemption of the firstborn.

Christians are not bound by ceremonial law. Since the church is not the nation of Israel, circumcision is not required. As well, memorial festivals, such as the Feast of Weeks and Passover, or adornment restrictions such as tattoos do not apply.

The Apostle Paul goes on to remind us that the Old Testament Law was designed by God to lead people to Jesus. Now that Jesus has come and set us free, we are now not under the law in order to be in good standing with God. Our right standing before God comes from placing our trust in Jesus’ death on the cross to pay for our debts, not on following the Old Testament regulations.

 “So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.” – Galatians 3:24–25

 If we were to obey the laws of the Old Testament today, we would be bound by rules that would restrict shellfish, pork eating and hipster hairstyles. We’d also be hard pressed to find anyone who would wear clothing mixed of two different materials, or unconcerned if the Angus beef they’d been eating had been bred with a Devon cow. Simply put, declaring that tattoos are out of bounds for a believer are putting themselves back under slavery to the law.

Further to that, getting inked today isn’t something the average wearer gets to link themselves to cultic worship practices, tattoos today are mainly for ornamentation. The tattoo of today can describe images that merely please the wearer, or have deeper meaning to the owner.

Many Christians today are tattooing themselves not in tribute to a false idol or anti-Christian deity, but with love for the one true God and Creator. It is seen as a way of giving glory to God in that ‘Christian’ themed tattoos attract questions about faith to those who aren’t convinced yet. Certainly, having a tattoo saying “Jesus saves” could indeed be a conversation starter with some people who would never approach a preacher wearing a suit and tie.

In 1 Corinthians we read, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel.” – 1 Corinthians 9:22-23

If having a tattoo genuinely opens doors for evangelism that would otherwise be closed, getting a ‘Christian’ tattoo would likely “qualify” under Paul’s “becoming all things” qualification.

However, while artistic self-expression can be OK, our primary motive for anything we do should be to glorify God. This means seeking to honour and draw attention to him, not ourselves. Getting a tattoo for purposes of witness may be acceptable, but remember, this is not the primary or most effective way to evangelize. It is in no way a substitute for verbally communicating the gospel. You are not fulfilling the Great Commission simply because you have a tattoo of a Bible verse.

With this said, while there may be no clear passage in the Bible addressing getting or not getting inked, this is hardly a license for unrestrained tattooing. You still need to think before you ink, especially if you’re a Christian. The following are guiding questions to help you think through your decision.

  • If I live with my parents, would my parents support my decision? Would I be defying the authority God gave my parents over me at my current age? If it is in rebellion to parents, it is clearly not acceptable, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honour your father and mother” – which is the first commandment with a promise – so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.” – Ephesians 6:1-3
  • Would I still want this particular image when I get older?
  • What if my future mate wouldn’t like having to see this image for a lifetime?
  • Will employers want to hire you? Numerous companies don’t want your tattoo to be visible, and it can actually prevent you from being hired. Many employers will restrict your tattoos, requiring you to cover them up because they are not socially acceptable from a business standpoint.
  • Would this tattoo be in an area of my body that would be plainly visible? – Many people do unfairly judge people with tattoos as being “second-class.”
  • What is it about yourself that you want to communicate to the world? Tattoos are powerful messages, automatically conveying what you value. They are nearly permanent and will likely be with you for life. A growing experience with tattoos is what has officially been termed, “tattoo regret.” As you mature, you may, like increasing numbers of people, regret your tattoos because you have outgrown their messages and changed your values.
  • Would this image bring God glory?
  • Do I feel fully convinced that tattoos are allowable for Christians?
  • Is it a wise use of money? “In America, you can expect a basic price of $80 to $100 an hour…very few shops will ever touch you for less than $40” (tattooinfo.net). We are responsible to God for how we use our money. It’s also important to keep in mind that the removal technologies being developed are even more expensive than the cost of getting a tattoo in the first place.
  • Medical concerns. There are real health risks with tattoos. The Mayo Clinic warns, “don’t take tattooing lightly”. They’ve resulted in severe allergic reactions, infections, unsightly scars, and blood-borne diseases like Hepatitis B and C. Tattooing deliberately opens skin and exposes your blood to unknown bacteria. Tattoo parlors are not medical clinics, although they are puncturing skin and exposing blood.

Please, don’t make this decision hastily or rashly. Getting a tattoo is not for everyone, and is certainly not for a Christian who feels unconvinced that getting a tattoo is completely Biblical. In this and many areas of the Christian life there are many truly excellent believers who have varying degrees of agreement and disagreement about Christians with tattoos. In whatever you believe about this issue I hope that you will leave gracious space for others who might feel differently.

New Year’s Resolution – No More Photobombing Jesus

Common New Year’s resolutions would be commitments to quit smoking, to stop drinking, to manage money more wisely, and to spend more time with family. By far, the most common New Year’s resolution is to lose weight, in conjunction with exercising more and eating more healthily. These are all good goals to set.

This year though I am making a new Year’s resolution you’ll probably not find in a top ten list anywhere. I’m going to quit ‘photobombing’ Jesus. As I have pondered the past year… for that matter the past few years, I have discovered that I have a repeatable tendency to try and photobomb Jesus. I say ‘try’ because Jesus can never actually be photobombed… but it seems I try just the same.

For those who aren’t familiar with the term ‘photobomb’, the dictionary’s definition is: “To spoil a photograph of (a person or thing) by unexpectedly appearing in the camera’s field of view as the picture is taken, typically as a prank or practical joke.” In other words, trying to take away the glory moment from the other person.

I photobomb Jesus when I serve God with mixed motives. When I hope lost people will be saved – but I want to be the evangelist God used, I photobomb Jesus. When I desire Christians to be encouraged – but I want to be the instrument of edification, I photobomb Jesus. When I want people to think God was awesome, that is of course a good thing. But when I want them to think that I was too – well that’s doing the photobomb thing again. Get the idea?

Having said that, it’s not a wrong thing to want to be part of what God is doing – we’re created for this purpose as Paul speaks to the church in Ephesus, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” – Ephesians 2:10

Jesus even said that It’s not wrong to want people to see God glorified in your life. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that  they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” – Matthew 5:16

If we need more convincing listen to Peter tell us that It’s actually a good thing to serve with the hope that people will be convicted of their sin and trust in Christ because of your good works being recognized. “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” – 1 Peter 2:12

So, it appears that God’s Word shows us that it’s wrong and even sinful if you don’t desire these things since that should be a part of a sanctified life. God being glorified through me is the height of my created purpose, but there’s a fine line between wanting God to use you for his glory and wanting everyone to know about it. We must pay careful attention to our hearts so we don’t seek to steal glory from Jesus.

What does that look like then? What does a photobomb look like in the realm of discipleship? Probably best to use examples in my own life since I’m the one making this particular New Year’s resolution.

I must admit that there have been times as a preacher where I’ve left a great Sunday service only to feel discouraged because I didn’t hear someone tell me, “That was the most amazing message I’ve ever heard.”

As I thought about why I felt that way, I realized that I was seeking satisfaction in my efforts. However, true useful servants are those who find their satisfaction in simply serving, even when no one affirms them, as long as Jesus gets the applause. Problem is that when I seek affirmation to be satisfied, not only will I not find my satisfaction realized, but I also end up stealing from Jesus.

And then adding insult to injury, I have found that photobombing Jesus for attention often leads to a depressed devotional life. As an example, when I become more concerned about my public performance than my private devotion I neglect my prayer life, because other things feel more pressing. Photobombers feel hurried out of the prayer closet because we value being before men more than before God.

Continuing on in my public transparency, I have seen where photobombing has presented occasions where I have become discouraged and even bitter when God has used others instead of me for what I thought were my goals.

Stepping into my role as ‘rookie’ lead pastor a few years ago, I knew that God was going to grow his church. What I didn’t expect was that numerical growth wasn’t going to happen in the specific location I was a part of. God had other plans which ultimately, I saw and gave him praise for, however during that time, another church down the road grew like nobody’s business.

Though I loved the pastor of that ‘other’ fellowship, I’ll admit that I became bitter. I felt discouraged because I felt that God had “overlooked” me. Hadn’t I spent enough time in prayer? I had even fasted; didn’t that count for something? I must say that this season was a good time to re-evaluate why I served Jesus.

Looking at John the Baptist, you quickly realize that he would never have been accused of photobombing. Crowds flocked to John, but he had one mission – to make Jesus known. “He must increase, but I must decrease.” John was content serving in the background so that Jesus could be seen more clearly.

Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.’” – Mark 8:34-35 

…And, “Whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” – Matthew 10:38

When the Roman Empire crucified a criminal or captive, the victim was often forced to carry his cross part of the way to the crucifixion site, often through the heart of the city. The picture Jesus gives is of a man or woman, already condemned, required to carry the beam of his or her own cross to the place of execution.

Disciples from Galilee knew what this meant, since hundreds had been executed by this means in their region. The modern equivalent would be to walk down a hallway toward an electric chair. Death in this case is the obvious destination, and so the idea is that in this life of submission to Jesus, we are in reality in a death processional.

In other words, if we “deny ourselves”, and commit ourselves to death, we can no longer place any hope in this world. By “taking up our cross”, it is as if all our natural passions and desires are doomed, giving up any claim for our self and selfish wants and needs.

Paul said, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” – Romans 12:1-2

What was Paul saying here? It’s only as we give everything up… only as we allow our self to be sacrificed are we able to be changed. Dead people don’t make very good photobombers.

My New Year’s resolution for 2018 then is to live a life that is dying to know Christ and then living to make him known in a photobomb free zone.

Jesus came to save photobombers like me from ourselves. In fact, he gave up his own glory and then died for all the times we steal God’s glory. He alone is worthy of praise in 2018 and into eternity.

What Is The True Spirit Of Christmas?

It doesn’t take very long to notice that Christmas is only one week away (unless you don’t own a radio, TV, have no friends and never step a foot outside your door). Everywhere you look you can’t help but see the lights, decorations, and store front signs declaring great deals to entice the dollars out of one’s pocket in order to ‘help’ celebrate the spirit of Christmas.

But what is the spirit of Christmas – really? Is it about turkey and stuffing? Is it about presents and family? Is it about time off from work and the start of the World Junior Hockey tournament? Go Canada! Or is it something more?

If you asked the average person on the street, you may hear answers such as the spirit being about generosity, giving, kindness, world peace, or that it’s a general feeling of emotional goodness to everyone at least once in the year.

I don’t know if I’d necessarily disagree with any of those sentiments but I would have to say that they have only given a glimpse into the true spirit of Christmas. That’s because I believe it’s all about a gift from God which includes parts of those other answers but is so much more as well.

I really think that because the nativity story has become so familiar to many of us it’s easy to forget how profound this gift from God really is. We receive Christmas cards that contain simple, yet startling phrases that should help us recapture the awe of this season yet often they don’t because we have become so used to them, so much so that they’ve lost their impact.

It can be so easy for us to throw around words without taking the time to explain or understand their importance. Words like Emmanuel which means “God with us.” Do we really understand what that means? We sing songs with that word in them, we read cards that use that word, but do we really understand the meaning? Emmanuel literally means, “God is with us”.

That name tells us something amazing about God. He is not some distant deity separated from our daily struggles; rather he uses that name to tell us a very special & deeply meaningful message. What is that message?

Well… if you were to ask me, “Steve, what is your favourite Christmas passage?” I would have to say that other than the Luke passage it’d have to be the chapter three passage that’s found in John’s Gospel, and more specifically the following verse. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whosoever believes in him will not perish but will instead have eternal life.” – John 3:16

John is saying that the creator of the cosmos is deeply interested in us, much like a father getting down on his knees to be with his kids on their level. That’s the picture we have in John 3:16 – God bending down and leaning into our lives as he offers the most incredible Christmas gift to us, his kids.

That’s the meaning behind the name Emmanuel. God is with us and keenly interested. He’s with us when we’re lonely or afraid or hurting or worried, even when we’re stuck in our sins. Emmanuel captures the essence of Christmas. In fact, the spirit of Christmas is really the infinite becoming an infant.

The back story to Christmas is that there had been a broken relationship. In the beginning of the human narrative, Adam & Eve broke the one relationship that meant anything, that all other relationships stemmed from – a relationship with God.

There obviously needed to be a reconciliation. Reconciliation entails the coming together of two parties in order to make right what went wrong in the relationship.

The truth of the matter is that our relationship with God was broken, but not because God said the wrong things, or did the wrong things. Rather, it was we who said and did the wrong things. And we’re still saying the wrong things, doing the wrong things, failing to say and do the right things. And we’re all suffering for it. And it all stems from our selfish desires.

If we are honest with ourselves, we know that we live for self. You can call it selfishness, but I like Luther’s way of talking about it – in Latin. Not because I understand Latin, but because it just sounds cool! “Sin”, Luther says, “is INCURVATUS IN SE”, which means ‘to be curved in upon the self’.

The rupture in our relationship with God occurs when we decide that we are independent, autonomous individuals who are quite capable of living life on our own, thank you very much.

And because of that decision we work to make all of life curved in upon self, such that we are holding up our own little world like little Atlases of Greek myth fame. Problem is however that our personal globes are getting very heavy, because our little worlds are too much for us to bear.

If that is where you are at, finding that the weight of your world on your shoulders is much too heavy a burden to bear, then this Christmas I invite you to accept the message of the season.

The message that the baby Jesus came for all who recognize that they are tired of living INCURVATUS IN SE, and who realize that they can’t continue carrying the weight in their own strength and so are now ready to give up all that load they carry and give it to someone (Jesus) who can and will carry it for them if you give up everything for him.

The spirit of Christmas is a proclamation of good news of great joy from God that tells us that we don’t have to live for ourselves anymore and that we don’t need to carry that heavy weight any longer.

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  – Isaiah 9:6

Here’s the amazing thing. You see, according to the word of God, we are all sinners which means that left on our own, we would never have sought God because we never would have understood him and would never have recognized him, so he had to come looking for us. That is the inescapable conclusion of the Christmas story.

The Christmas story is about God tracking us down, each and every one of us, to find us and reveal himself to us because he wanted us to know him. Christmas is God coming to us, entering our world, stepping into our time and space because we couldn’t get to him.

He wanted us to know the depth of his love for us, but because words weren’t enough, he came to be with us by taking the form of man, incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ – the Prince of Peace. And as the Prince of Peace we can finally be reconciled with God the father and enjoy peace with him as we were originally created to enjoy.

Over the coming days, focus on and celebrate who Jesus is and all that his coming means. His miraculous birth was the start of something that history will never repeat. And as we are heading toward Christmas day at the end of this very week,  let us focus on the spirit of Christmas – which is only Jesus, which is always Jesus.

Does Christmas Have Pagan Roots And Should That Matter?

A friend recently told me that she and her family don’t celebrate Christmas because it began as a pagan holiday. Is that ‘pagan root’ thing true and if it is, does that mean that we all shouldn’t celebrate Christmas? What is the truth of the matter?

Personally, I look forward to the season. I see it as a natural opportunity to share Christ with the world – especially given that for the most part there is an ‘openness’ to the gospel message during this time of the year like no other time on the calendar. But still, does my friend have a legitimate point? Was the event we now call Christmas originally a “pagan holiday”?

Does it mean then that the gifts we exchange are to be shunned because some Druid somewhere in time offered a gift to his goat as part of some pagan ritual? And does that mean the church should discard all of the Christmas season, along with its lights, tinsel, Christmas carol re-runs and increasing commercialism?

There is no doubt that some of what we now refer to as Christmas traditions can be traced back, in some form, to pagan cultures and celebrations. In fact, December 25, which Christians now herald as Jesus’ birthday, was actually the date on which the Romans celebrated the birth of the sun god.

After the Roman emperor Constantine ‘converted’ to Christianity at the Milvian Bridge in 312, he combined the worship of the sun god with worship of Christ. Many of the Christian leaders at that time accepted Constantine’s conversion in a positive light, irrespective of whether he was sincere or converted for political purposes, and seized on the opportunity to celebrate the “Christ-mass” as a vital part of the process of converting the pagan world.

But even long before Constantine, Christians found ways to redeem local cultures and salvage elements in those cultures that naturally pointed to Christ, whether Hebrew, Syrian, Greek, or Roman. They denounced inhumane pagan practices, but at the same time took over pagan temples and converted them to churches. They replaced the old gods in popular devotion with heroic martyrs of the persecutions. And they replaced the holy days of paganism with festivals of the Christian year.

An example could be the early pagan ritual of lighting candles to drive away the forces of cold and darkness. The Christians of the time adopted that tradition making it their own. Today, is it highly unlikely that our hearts are drawn to those early pagans as we light our candles, rather we rejoice in our Saviour, the Light of the World as John speaks to in his gospel.

“In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.” – John 1:4

As for the Druid offering a gift to his goat. I think it’s safe to say that instead of giving any credence to the history of idolatry, we instead remember, as we should, the gifts given to the Christ-child by the Magi. Jesus was the greatest gift ever given, and therefore his birth is worthy of celebration and gifts worthy to be shared as a symbol of God’s giving heart.

Facts are however, that the beginnings of many Christmas traditions are so obscure that reference books and internet sites contradict one another on the details. Some of our most popular and beloved Christmas symbols are in fact entirely Christian, and were never part of any pagan religion anywhere. At the same time, some Christmas traditions undoubtedly do have their origins in the pagan past.

So, what do we do – or not do? If you are like my friend and are fully convinced that you cannot, in good conscience, observe a particular Christmas tradition, then please, by all means do not observe it. If you are fully convinced that a particular tradition is too steeped in paganism to honour God in any way, by all means forsake that tradition. At the same time, if you are fully convinced that you can honour and worship God through a particular tradition, then please honour and worship God.

I believe that this is an example where the Romans 14 passage applies. One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” – Romans 14:5

In the end, what is important is not the origins of traditions, but their significance to us today as believers in the Son of God. For Christians, we celebrate because of the significance seen in the birth of our Saviour, and the traditions remind us of that momentous event that changed the world forever.

But more importantly, the traditions we share help tell the Christmas story about God tracking us down to find us and reveal himself to a sin filled world because he wanted us to know him. Words weren’t enough and so he came to be with us because we could not get to him. He took the form of man, incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ and lived among us to show us a better way.

Image that, God came as a baby who grew to be a man and walked, talked and fellowshipped with humanity in the person of Jesus – the prince of peace. And as the Prince of Peace we can finally be reconciled with God the father and enjoy peace with him as we were originally created to enjoy.

One final thought. December 25 was not mentioned in the biblical narrative as the day Jesus was born, and, as such, we can’t be dogmatic about it one way or the other. But even if the date is completely wrong, there is still the opportunity for thousands of people who wouldn’t go to church any other time of the year to go on Christmas day and hear the gospel of Christ.

That should count for something I think. That being the case…

Let the celebration begin!

How Can We Forgive When We Can’t?

We all love to pull out the following verse from Matthew when someone doesn’t seem to forgive us and present it to them as if it was written ‘special’ for them. “Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times’.” – Matthew 18:21-22 (NIV)

The reality is that when the shoe is on the other foot we often find It harder to accept that verse as written for ourselves. If truth be told I need to seek forgiveness much more often than I extend it. So, if I expect grace extended to me, I better extend grace to others, easily and willingly.

Still, I can’t think of a more difficult command given in scripture. It goes against our nature. Every pore of our body screams, “No, I won’t do it – I can’t do it!” And then Jesus says, “If you do not forgive, I will not forgive.” We know what is right to do. We even want to do what is right. But we feel paralyzed.

I read a story of Yoko Ono requesting that the anniversary of John Lennon’s death be made into an international day of forgiveness. What a wonderful thought, just imagine (do you like what I did there?). The thing is that Yoko added a disclaimer in the same conversation. She stated that though she wished for an international day, she herself couldn’t be led to absolve the murderer of John.

She herself couldn’t forgive. When it comes to us Christians however, forgiving others is not an option even if we feel we can’t. How can we forgive when faced with that dilemma – how can we forgive when we can’t?

First of all, Jesus gives us a great example of what our hearts should be like in the whole area of forgiveness found in John 13:3-17…

After washing the feet of his disciples, he drops a bombshell on the group, announcing that one of them is going to betray him. Our images of the last supper have largely been shaped by renaissance masters such as DaVinci who portray Jesus sitting at the centre of a long table with six disciples on either side, much like a team photo. But DaVinci got it wrong.

The last supper would have been eaten according to their custom’s and their cultural norms. The practice would have been in the fashion of a Greco-Roman triclinium which meant that the Jesus’ guys would have been reclining on their left hips and elbows, freeing up their right hands to eat from the settings on the floor or on slightly raised tables instead of sitting upright on chairs.

Place settings in this fashion would be shared by three people, where one diner could lean back to place his head on the chest of the person to his left, or if someone was to the right, lean forward into his neighbour’s back if he wanted to share a private word. It was certainly a much more intimate way of breaking bread than what we’re used to.

With that picture in mind imagine that at one point in the meal John leans back into Jesus’ chest to ask him a question. Knowing that Jesus was the host, this would place John in the “best man” position immediately in front of Jesus.

Meanwhile, Mark tells us that Judas shared the third spot in that place setting when he records, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the dish with me.” – Mark 14:20

Given that the spot immediately in front of Jesus was taken up by John, the only spot left was immediately to Jesus’ back, the spot reserved for the guest of honour. And that was where Judas was breaking bread that night. Imagine that! Judas was Jesus’ guest of honour at the last supper. This seating arrangement was equivalent as saying… “I trust you my friend… you’ve got my back.”

Jesus knew who would betray him and yet he continued to extend grace to Judas, even washing his feet and giving him the honoured place at his table. Sadly, Judas was given the chance to repent all the way to the end but didn’t accept it, ultimately refusing Jesus’ amazing grace while leaving the party to carry out his plan of betrayal. When he did this act, he condemned himself.

Here’s my point. Should we not live in the same way as Jesus did with Judas, with those who may have wronged us? Should we not continue to extend grace and forgiveness and love no matter their response to us even if they reject us?

Rebecca Pippert relates the powerful story of the late Corrie ten Boom. This Dutch woman and her family were sent to Auschwitz for hiding Jews in their home during the Second World War. Corrie was a Christian woman and had been invited to speak at a conference in Portland Oregon. This is what she said,

“My name is Corrie ten Boom and I am a murderer.” There was total silence. “You see, when I was in prison camp I saw the same guard day in and day out. He was the one who mocked and sneered at us when we were stripped naked and taken into the showers. He spat on us in contempt, and I hated him. I hated him with every fiber of my being. And Jesus says when you hate someone you are guilty of murder.”

“When we were freed, I left Germany vowing never to return,” Corrie ten Boom continued. “But I was invited back there to speak. I didn’t want to go but I felt the Lord nudging me to. Very reluctantly I went. My first talk was on forgiveness. Suddenly, as I was speaking, I saw to my horror that same prison guard sitting in the audience. There was no way that he would have recognized me. But I could never forget his face, never. It was clear to me from the radiant look on his face while I spoke, that he had been converted since I saw him last. After I finished speaking he came up and said with a beaming smile, ‘Ah, dear sister Corrie, isn’t it wonderful how God forgives?” And he extended his hand for me to shake.

“All I felt as I looked at him was hate. I said to the Lord silently, “There is nothing in me that could ever love that man. I hate him for what he did to me and to my family. But you tell us that we are to love our enemies. That’s impossible for me, but nothing is impossible for you. So, if you expect me to love this man it’s going to have to come from you, because all I feel is hate.”

She went on to say that at that moment she felt nudged to do only one thing: “Put out your hand, Corrie,” the Lord seemed to say. Then she said, “It took all of the years that I had quietly obeyed God in obscurity to do the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. I put out my hand.”

 Then, she said, something remarkable happened. “It was only after my simple act of obedience that I felt something almost like warm oil was being poured over me. And with it came the unmistakable message: ‘Well done, Corrie. That’s how my children behave.’ And the hate in my heart was absorbed and gone. And so, one murderer embraced another murderer, but in the love of Christ.” [Hope Has It’s Reasons p. 189, 190]

There is something deep within fallen human nature that thirsts for revenge and urges retaliation in kind. We just can’t seem to forgive – naturally. Someone seeks forgiveness and I think “Yeah, but don’t do it again”. In fact, we naturally want to inflict the same type of injury on the one who injured us – an eye for an eye seems only fair. But we must give up on the idea that we are the judge, jury and executioner and instead leave the judging to God.

I’ll admit to you that I have struggled to forgive someone who technically is on the same cosmic level with me and yet have expected God, who is light years above us in the same scale, to forgive me. But for the Christian, forgiving others is not an option. If I can’t forgive I guess the question is whether I am truly trusting in God’s transforming power – in my life and others’.  At the end of the day I need to forgive a human being who is like me with all the faults and weaknesses that come with being a human if I in turn expect God, coming from all his perfection and holiness, to forgive me.

That being the case, just how can I forgive someone when I can’t? Corrie got it right. What is impossible for us is completely possible for God, which is why forgiveness can only come about through the transformational power of God in our lives. We all need to rely on the Holy Spirit to forgive through us. That’s a God job and only God can do God jobs well.

Why Are Christians So Narrow Minded?

To be accused of being narrow minded is considered to be among the biggest and baddest insults which can be levelled at an individual in our Western culture. The thought is that being narrow-minded implies that one is not open to new ideas because you must obviously think you already know all there is to know. The common fear of having such a ‘rigid mind’ is that some believe that it means one is not open to change because of some deep seeded ignorance, which can only lead to fanaticism. But is this true?

A few years ago, there was an interview between Oprah Winfrey and Tom Cruise about Scientology. Oprah was clearly skeptical of Cruise’s religious beliefs, but she then asked the million dollar question: “You don’t believe Scientology is the only true religion, do you?” 

Of course Cruise answered the question as Oprah would expect, denying that Scientology claimed to be the only true religion, (apparently only conservative evangelical Christians are foolish enough to make such a claim). After making that clarification, it was obvious that Oprah’s tension immediately lessened.

It’s taboo in our modern culture to say that another person’s alternate lifestyle, religion, or different perspective is wrong. However, one exception to that rule seems to stand out, which is that It seems perfectly acceptable to be intolerant of those who claim they know the truth, in particular, evangelical conservative Christianity.

However, whenever you accept one idea over another, you’re simultaneously closing yourself off to that other idea by consequence. Happens all the time and it happens to everybody. In fact, for someone to claim that Christians are narrow minded is in itself a narrow minded view because that individual making that claim believes it to be true and so rejects the counter view that christians are open minded. See the irony? So if I say that 2 + 2 = 5 and you come along and say that no… it equals 4, are you narrow minded? 

Imagine that researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton Canada this very week discovered the ‘pill’ that could instantly cure all forms of cancer, painlessly and 100% effective every single time it was administered. I couldn’t imagine anyone accusing them of hatred or bigotry or of being “cancerphobic” if they made the claim that this was the final and only treatment for cancer that anyone would ever need.

Or imagine you and I in a deep conversation while standing 50 feet away from the edge of an 1500 foot cliff with no guard rails. Suddenly we see a blind boy of about 10 years of age walking slowly toward the edge with no idea of the danger he is in. What if he called out and asked, “Which way should I go?” And I answered, “It doesn’t matter, go any way you like?”

I know for a fact that you’d call me an idiot. If I care about him even in the slightest (as I would because he is a fellow human being), I’d yell at the top of my lungs, “Please stop! Don’t take another step. I’ll come and get you.” And then I’d run over as fast as i could, take him by the hand and lead him to safety. Love compels me to speak the truth and act it out.

Even knowing this, we can tend to get defensive when someone calls us ‘narrow minded’, because it suggests that we aren’t open to ‘new things’, that we are closed to ‘new and innovative’ ideas and as such we are the ‘ignorant ones’ of society.

I think though, that what most people consider being narrow minded is in reality being closed minded, the two often being confused with each other and used interchangeably as though they are the same thing. However, they aren’t the same thing. In fact we should be open minded when it comes to ‘questions’ and to ‘new ideas’, and we should be scientific in much of our approach to life. We are to search things out and to seek out truth. But if those new and innovative ideas lead to wrong choices, or hurtful consequences, or simply a wrong answer (as on that math test), then I’d suggest that being narrow minded is actually the best place to be.

I am not saying that Christians are better, smarter, nicer, more deserving, chose better, or anything else in and of themselves compared to non-Christians. They are Christians only because Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, has given them new hearts of flesh, renewed minds to understand, and new and true eyes to see Jesus for who he is. As a result, It then is natural for those Christians to accept the narrow way that Jesus laid out.

And Jesus’ ways and his words are always narrow, because he never changes. He is the same yesterday, today and forever.  And even when his ways and his words make us feel uncomfortable with our broad ways of thinking,  that should bring us back to focusing all of our attention on him.  Once we have done that, and have been brought back to a place of narrow focus, he opens the eyes of our hearts and we begin to see more broadly (from an eternal perspective) than we ever have before.

So are Christians narrow minded? Absolutely! Jesus said, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” – Matthew 7:13-14.

If you want to find your way to God, you have to travel the one and only course Jesus laid out for humanity. Other roads might look attractive and might seem like shortcuts, but only one ‘narrow’ road leads to heaven and brings us into a right relationship with God. And the truth is that the Love of Christ should then compel us to let the world hear about our narrow point of view, because in the end, it opens us all up to so much more of what God wishes us to know.

What Is The Cure For Evil & Suffering?

Why does God allow evil? If God has the power to prevent evil and desires to prevent evil, why does he still allow evil? Why isn’t he doing something about it? If God created the world the way it is today; he wouldn’t be a God of love, but rather an evil God.

These are some of the questions posed, sincerely and not so sincere, by many people. Sometimes they are used to bolster arguments against God and sometimes are asked in a sincere quest to ‘understand’.

We might not have any easy answers (if any at all) about why God allows evil and suffering, but we can know the ultimate cure for evil, suffering and death – his name is Jesus. When asking questions of such importance, I believe that the best place to find answers is found in God’s word. That being the case, let’s look at five truths found in God’s word, that if embraced, will be a source of encouragement for the Jesus follower.

God didn’t create a fallen world

 The first truth to embrace is that God didn’t create the world in the state in which it is now, instead evil came as a result of the selfishness and sinful disobedience of human beings.

The truth of the matter is that God is a God of love and his desire was to create a person and eventually a race that would choose to love him. However genuine love can’t exist unless it’s freely given through free choice. Mankind was given the choice to accept God’s love or to reject it which made evil a very real possibility.

The thing is that if God hadn’t allowed for the possibility of evil, mankind would be serving God out of obligation, not choice. He created us as real human beings with the ability to love and follow him – or not. Unfortunately, we chose the “not,” and brought sin and evil into the picture.

If Adam and Eve had only obeyed God, then they may have lived on earth forever, walking with God, tending the garden, working together, no mosquitos. But after they sinned, they were just not on the same page with God anymore. That’s because God can’t tolerate sin, having no sin within himself.

Maybe we should just blame Adam and Eve for the evil in the world. After all, they blamed each other and the serpent; however, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” – Romans 3:23

I think that it’s safe to say that, had we been in the garden instead of Adam and Eve, we would have sinned in the same way. Now, because of the fall, the world is chaotic and abnormal. Things are not in the state that they should be in. Nature is not always kind and there is conflict between each other. Health issues, hunger issues, abuse issues… none of these conditions were true before the fall when God created it all good.

God knows what’s best

The arguments go something like this: If God is good, then maybe he isn’t powerful enough to deal with all the evil and injustice in the world since it is still going on. Or, if God is powerful enough to stop wrongdoing, yet all-knowing and so must know about the pain and suffering inflicted, then he must be evil since he’s not doing anything about it, even though he has the capability.

The truth is that God knows what’s best even when we don’t. Although the Bible informs us how and why evil came about, it does not tell us why God allowed it to happen. However, we do know that God is all-wise and all-knowing and that he has reasons for allowing things to happen that go way beyond our understanding.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” – Isaiah 55:8-9

All one has to do is read Job to see that no one understands the depth of wisdom and knowledge possessed by God. We are not his counselor! He does as he pleases and we are left to praise him for what he does!

That would be a good lesson for us all to learn as we go through life. We need to stop trying to figure out the ‘why’ of everything and start simply learning to trust God by faith. He knows what he is doing, we don’t! He sees the future and knows what is best for now and then, we don’t!

God has a plan

In the middle of all the evil and suffering, one thing becomes abundantly clear. God has a plan to redeem fallen mankind. The salvation Jesus provides attests to his goodness and love, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” – Romans 5:8

The Bible clearly reveals the devastating effects of sin and the hopelessness of man in solving his own sin problem. Because of this ‘sin situation’ we find ourselves in, a proper understanding of the doctrine of sin is essential to understanding God’s remedy for it.

Jesus called Satan “the ruler of this world” – John 12:31, which means Satan has been allowed a certain amount of authority over this world. The blame for the evil in this world should be placed squarely upon Satan. Much is written about the devil – he comes only to kill, steal, and destroy (John 10:10). He is a fierce enemy and a liar and a murderer.

By contrast, Jesus is the Good Shepherd who gives his life for the sheep. God’s plan was to send his son to earth to die in our place because we could never hope to take care of our sin problem and defeat the devil on our strength, wisdom or terms. It had to be through God’s sinless son.

Though evil is here and it is real, it is temporary because of Jesus. Jesus is Goodness incarnate. Evil will eventually be destroyed. This is the hope that the believer has. After all, our God is the God of justice, and he will one day make all things right (Revelation 21:5). Because of Christ, we have the promise of Romans 16:20, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.”

There is a new world coming in which there will be no more tears or pain because all things will be made new. Paradise lost will be paradise regained.

God is delaying for us

Some ask, “That’s all fine and good, but a truly good God would eliminate evil today.” My question is, “But then, are you ready to be eliminated, since you – like me – are to some degree evil?” The truth is that the total annihilation of evil is a part of the plan. There will one day come a time when God will judge the sin in this world and make all things new.

Great news if you are already counted among those who have repented of their sin, but what about those who haven’t yet made things right with God? The great news is the fourth truth to embrace, which is that God is purposely “delaying” in order to allow more time for people to repent so that he will not need to condemn them. God’s desire is that for all of our sakes we would obey him that it might be well with us.

 “Oh, that they had such a heart as this always, to fear me and to keep all my commandments, that it might go well with them and with their descendants forever!” – Deuteronomy 5:29

Instead, what happens is that we choose our own way, and then we blame God for not doing anything about it. That’s the heart of sinful man.

But Jesus came to change our hearts through the power of the Holy Spirit, and he does this for those who will turn from evil and call on him to save them from their sin and its consequences.

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” – 2 Corinthians 5:17

Just picture the Sinless One who created everything, willfully hanging on a cross and spilling his blood for the sin of those who put their faith in him. Jesus proves God’s love. “Love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” – 1 John 4:7-8.

God has experienced suffering

For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is – limited and suffering and subject to evil, pain and death – yet God had the honesty and the courage to take his own medicine. He can demand nothing from man that he has not demanded from himself.

He has himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair and death. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it absolutely worthwhile.

Yes, God suffered too. It’s easy to forget that the Holy God of the universe chose, out of love, to humble himself, become one of us, and ultimately to suffer in ways none of us every will (or ever could imagine) in order to purchase our redemption.

As a result, he can not only forgive our sins and freely give us salvation, but also sympathize with all we’re going through.

“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” – Hebrews 4:14-16

God does prevent and restrain some acts of evil. Thankfully so, because this world would be MUCH WORSE were not for God restraining evil. At the same time, God has given us the ability to choose good and evil, and when we choose evil, he allows us, and those around us, to suffer the consequences of evil.

So in the end, rather than blaming God and questioning him on why he doesn’t prevent or eliminate all evil, we should be about the business of proclaiming the cure for evil and its consequences – Jesus Christ!